The Chambered Nautilus

March 4, 2009


My friend Linda, who shares my fascination for spiral shells, loaned me her beloved Chambered Nautilus so that I could make a still life drawing of it.  Although most nautiluses are painted or photographed in their bisected form, I like the pattern and colours of the outer shell.  The scan I was able to make of the drawing doesn’t show all of the text of the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  Not long after I returned the shell to Linda, it was shattered by accident.   One of the qualities I find most appealing about seashells is their fragility.  It’s a mystery how so many of them are able to survive a lifetime of pounding waves and sea stones and still leave behind a shell that’s intact.

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,–
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,–
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:–

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

~ Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94).

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8 Responses to “The Chambered Nautilus”

  1. pepsoid Says:

    “It’s a mystery how so many of them are able to survive a lifetime of pounding waves and sea stones and still leave behind a shell that’s intact.”

    But what will we humans leave behind? Recently read a fascinating (although sometimes scientifically dry) book about this…

  2. flandrumhill Says:

    Pepsoid, I read as much as I could in the Amazon sample (loved the reference to Ozymandias). I’ll look to see if I can find the book itself at the library.

    Shells are unique in that after death, they leave behind a part of their bodies that continues to be beautiful despite the passing of time.

  3. pepsoid Says:

    Kind of “living” fossils…?

  4. flandrumhill Says:

    Fossils is Latin for ‘dug up.’ I wonder if there’s something similar that means ‘washed ashore.’ I have an Ammonite fossil that was ‘dug up’ in Alberta, Canada which resembles the Chambered Nautilus of today. Ammonites thrived from 400 million – 65 million years ago.

  5. pepsoid Says:

    And we humans think *we* are the evolutionary success story!

  6. […] the most excellent example of this ratio is the shell of the Chambered Nautilus, the spirals found in these simple freshwater shells also aspire to similar […]

  7. janthinajourneys Says:

    I’ve just found your blog via Jessica Winder’s own. I love your seashell drawings, molluscs are my world almost. Not excluding friends and family!! Your drawings are nice, the Nautilus the ultimate subject. I’d like to link your blog in mine at

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